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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hanging Out

Early on in my ministry career, I heard the advice (from Henri Nouwen, I believe) that "interruptions were my ministry." Consequently, I've never felt that a hugely packed calendar of events and meetings defined what God called me to do. I am called to conversations, and sometimes they can be scheduled, and sometimes they can't.

For example, I've never really minded "meetings" as long as I got to set the agenda. A meeting, for me, is conversation about something...meetings that only meet to set up more meetings or to prove that one person is a more accomplished Christian than another make we want to put a pencil in my eye. A scheduled meeting can be a good thing or a bad thing, an unscheduled one is usually a disaster.

Catching up with people in their lives, however, is just the opposite. When I was first in ministry, I would schedule visits to people's homes, and they were so bad as to be painful. Here's a secret: people lie to pastors; especially if they know we're coming over. Everything is always so much worse or so much better when you tell a pastor something. I would sit in people's homes and look at the sparkling clean floors, still wet from Pine-Sol, and kids wearing clothes they hadn't even seen since Easter, and yet, everything is fine, everything is OK, and the world spins rightly on its axis.

But catch that same family at a grocery store or in the parking lot at school, and you see pain at children frustrated with parents, parents unable to cope with other parents, people stressed over money they don't have, and everyone pissed off at the government. Where are the clean floors and freshly ironed clothes? In the scrapheap of failed dreams and forgotten goals.

So nowadays I just hang out and listen. Sometimes people know I am a pastor, and I always tell people I am if they ask what I do. I've got no secrets. Plus, to be honest, most people have never met a pastor before, and some are genuinely curious about how I make a living. I try not to schedule too many meetings unless there's something to talk about that needs some serious conversation. I try to be more of a help than a hindrance.

I have never really had to prove myself in order to justify my existence. I am pretty comfortable being who I am. I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't consider myself "complete" or "with it" in any sense. I really like to hang out, talk and tell stories, and be part of the world.

I remember my college roommate really questioning how I could be pastor back when I started seminary. I learned one thing from that conversation that I have never forgotten and every day remind myself: my ministry will be defined by God, not by people. The only person I am trying to impress with my ministry is God. If others like it, or learn from it, or get support from it, or a kind word or prayer from it--great! But I do it for God, and in that way I do it for me.

So anytime you want to hang out, just let me know. Maybe we can schedule something? :)

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Blues, BBQ, and Blood

I am a product of the blues. This kind of blues  (actually Johnny Lang is too good looking to have the blues) But who doesn't love that song?

And when you're my size, you are also often the product of BBQ. Stuff like this  To me, there is nothing better than a grill full of meat.

But really I am a product of my mom and dad. I am their blood. 

Lots goes into making a person, from the music that underlays the soundtrack of their life; to the food one prefers that keeps one going, to the families that got one started and accompany one on the journey. But I wonder if the most important thing, even more important than music (doubtful), food (probably), and family (certainly) is the friends we make along the way?

I found a great friend, now about 27 years ago, who is without a doubt the single most important influence on who I am and what I do. I have friends, many of you gentle readers, whom I've known for years. I have new friends that keep my interested and entertained these days too. I am proud of my friends, and glad to be known by them.

I still peruse Facebook to look at pictures and to keep up with the "news." I love seeing what my friends are up to, and in some cases I am amazed they are my friends because they do such amazing things. Do I actually know (or in some cases, did know) someone who can do such amazing things? I know my Facebook "friends" are just a drop in the bucket to all the wonderful people I've been able to come across the last 50 years. So many...so many people I owe a debt of gratitude for showing me a trick, or keeping me alive, or helping me avoid disaster...so many friends over the years.

A lot goes into the making of a person. But when I die I don't want to be remembered by the food I ate, or the music I preferred, or even the family from which I came...I want to be remembered by all the people who have been a part, if even for one night, of my life.

So who makes you? Who are your friends? Who have been your companions? In the days we have, may God bless us with many friendships, new, re-newed, or even re-made. According to most traditions, the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, never married. Didn't care much for his birth family. And ate whatever was set in front of him. (Sadly, he lived before Robert Johnson could bring music to a new level.) But the guy had friends...in fact, all the stories we have about him are stories told by his friends. No one, and I mean no one, made friends like this dude. Christianity isn't a religion, it's just a bunch of friends on a way...and I am thankful so many of you join with me.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wedding Season

This is the season of weddings. In fact, my own anniversary is just a couple days away. Weddings can, and do, happen all across the calendar, but summer seems to bring out the marriage impulse in people.

And it's not just people getting married for the first time. Sure, there are plenty of first-time brides who are dreaming of big summer weddings, and countless groomsmen who are dreading wearing black tuxedos on humid 90 degree days, but even people marrying later in life, after a first spouse has died or been divorced, seem to want to get married this time of year. Marriage is an interesting institution.

A few years ago I sat down and estimated about how many marriage ceremonies I had performed over the years. I've had a couple of years where I have done 30, and one of 42 (personal record, 2004. And a nod to Congress and President George W. Bush who started a war and called up countless young men and women who got married before being deployed. I did 73 marriages, 60 of them involving service men and women, in the first 18 months of the Iraq war.) I am somewhere around 350 weddings I bet.

There was one day--July 7, 2007 (07/07/07) that I did 4 weddings. That too is my personal daily record. Now, I am not trying to be brave here, and I don't imagine I am anywhere near the "Most Weddings done All-Time" by a preacher. I'm just saying that I have seen my fair share of weddings. (Sadly, I have not been able to perform a wedding for any gay or lesbian couples. This is not right, and the world will be a better place when we have marriage equality.)

I'd also say that maybe only 2/3 of those weddings have been in churches. I have done weddings in Legion Halls, boats, bars, restaurants, backyards, golf-courses, pastures, cornfields (with standing corn), my office (this one is becoming more and more popular), living rooms, a pool, and the ocean, to name a few...I'm doing one next month in a historical village, fortunately, I don't have to dress in costume.

I've had brides in dresses costing thousands of dollars, and one who got hers the day before at a Goodwill for 10 bucks. (Her wedding cake was also made from Rice Krispie treats.) I've seen grooms in everything from shorts and flip-flops to jeans and cowboy hats to Armani tuxedos. (That was me.) Although I probably haven't seen everything, I've seen a lot. Except for one thing...

I've never seen someone not get married. (True, one time the bride was 30 minutes late, but her limo died, and she had to walk the last mile in 100 degree Chicago heat. I wish cell phones were invented back then, as the groom was freaking out a bit.) Everyone has always gone through with it. I've signed the licenses, I've blessed the rings, I've encouraged to the couples to kiss. Every single time they have gone through with it. Even if they knew they were getting divorced on Monday, they went through with it. (I don't know that has happened, but how would I know?)

And that interests me because it seems to imply that people find something valuable in those weddings. Maybe it's love? Maybe it's sex? Maybe it's family (whatever shape and size that might mean)? Maybe it's God? It could be commitment...it could be faithfulness...it could be happiness...(brings to mind the Stanley Hauewas joke: Christians have to love one another, even if they are married.)

I don't know what it is about weddings, but I think they are a time for us to be at our best as people, trying to figure out what we have in common, how we are related, and partying on someone else's dime. Whether there is a patina of religion on the wedding or not (and obviously I don't care if there is or not), I am sure God is smiling at most weddings. Weddings don't satisfy some rule that God has about sex or love; weddings aren't for moralists to preach about things they do not understand; weddings are about love and sharing it. Nothing more, nothing less. And if you find someone you can do that with on a regular basis...why wouldn't God smile? Why wouldn't you?

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Climate change and rhubarb

I love rhubarb pies, and strawberry rhubarb with my mom's homemade crust, made with lard, is about as good as it gets.  Turns out, however, that you need cold weather for rhubarb to grow. That could be a problem.

One of the things we have noticed in our move to Omaha is that the winters don't get too cold. (Remember, our previous homes were in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Bismarck. Omaha is as far south as we have ever been.) We like this warmer winter thing. I shoveled just twice last year, and one time I could have used a broom. Warmer winters work well for our aging bodies.

Yesterday, the Camaro said 100 degrees as we made our way to the movie SnowPiercer. This movie takes place on a train that travels around Europe, it is a self-contained ecosystem, and carries the only humans left after an ecological disaster.  I kept thinking about my rhubarb.

Even here in Omaha, rhubarb needs to go dormant in order to keep its tart taste. Rhubarb is kind of finicky when it comes to climates, but once it finds the right climate--you can't get ride of the stuff. It's rhubarb jam and pies for everybody!! If you've ever bought rhubarb in say, November, you notice how much sweeter it is than the stalks from your garden. Apparently some cultures force their rhubarb to grow so that its cultivates a sweeter, less tart, flavor. For me, if I want something sweet, I'll eat a strawberry...I want my rhubarb to pucker my face.

In the world of the Snowpiercer, my tart rhubarb doesn't exist. Sweet maybe, but not the tart stuff that makes for incredible pies. Since I live in the land of climate change "deniers" I am not sure sure what exactly is happening to our climate. Weather, I can experience, but climate seems a bit vague. I have no doubt that 7 billion people have an impact upon our climate. You'd be a lousy systems theorist to think that 7 billion of anything wouldn't have an impact upon a system. And the impact is probably as negative as it is positive. But either way, there is probably little doubt that the climate is changing...what that means is up for debate?

I've written many times over the past 6 years on this blog for Christian congregations to take the lead in ecological conservation. I believe for every dollar a congregation donates to a social service agency it should donate a dollar to a conservation or artistic non-profit as well. But the doctrine that creation, including climate, is a gift from God does not allow us to negate our stewardship in this climate we call Earth (third rock from the sun.)

Maybe the rhubarb being grown in gardens all across this globe don't really care about climate change? Maybe they are happy being grown in hothouses to be sweeter, and in being so garner a larger market share from berries and mangoes? Maybe it was never supposed to be tart in the first place, but it adapted that way because of where it first landed? (Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be native to the US.) I don't know...

But I did plant rhubarb this year. This plant is a lesson in patience. It will take a couple of years for this rhubarb to be ready to eat. One little plant I have I thought never even made the transplant, but then one day I say a tiny leaf peaking though, and voila! I have two beginning to establish. Who knows in two years if we'll even be living in this house? Or living at all? There's a lot of weather between July 2014 and July 2016.

And do you want to know something even weirder about rhubarb? If it gets too cold, the poison in the leaves leeches into the stalk, and the rhubarb then becomes toxic to humans. In the Snowpiercer world any rhubarb you found would kill you. So it needs cold, but not too much...kind of like a good Riesling.  This is what I wonder: is "climate" an excuse to change or to avoid change? It's the "change" that's interesting, the climate is whatever it is. And when the change causes rhubarbs and strawberries to taste the same, I will be sad;  because, if you've ever had the bitter-sweet, flaky-crusted strawberry rhubarb pie, you know the definition of harmony. You know delicious. And you'll know that change wasn't for the better...God promises me to "Fear Not" change, but that doesn't mean I have to like it; or, for that matter, I shouldn't plant a garden to try and slow the change down.
  (my rhubarb patch this morning.)

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.